One of a handful of stories that marked my shift toward near-future hard sci-fi. This story, along with Khodoki, Incantation, and Vanishing Point, helped me realize just what mix of grit, science, and humanity I wanted in my fiction. What I learned from these stories, written during my time in the M.A. Creative Writing program at the University of Texas, ultimately laid the foundation for my novel γ (Gamma).
The Bridge (Winter, 2000)
The new plague has no one name. In Rome they're calling it la malattia piangente (the "crying sickness") from the way water runs from the eyes of the dying. The French are more exact; they call it P. falciparum B, even on the evening news. It is this beast that Drs. Bouchet and Manette have come to Senegal to study.
Chendo knows only that he won't be harvesting peanuts this season. He's the one the white people have chosen as their guide and interpreter. Now his father will see the value of those extra two years at the government school. His brothers, who also stood there in the dusty courtyard of the Protestant missionary, were duly sent back to the fields yesterday afternoon, while he was taken inside for ice water and slices of baobab fruit. They lacked his command of French and writing. They will join the rest of the villagers in a wide fog of ignorance through which he will convey this learned white man and woman. All faces will be turned to him as though toward the light of the sun.
In addition, this morning he must illuminate something for the two European scientists, a matter of local geography. "You don't want to go there," he tells Dr. Bouchet. "Makakoro is a small backward town. The streets are cow paths. They still till the land with iron axes. They're Tijaniya; Islam is weaker there."
"Our observations require a remote location. We need to see the natural progression of the disease among people who have received minimal medical attention."
Some of the words get past Chendo, but he continues undaunted: "Our village is newer. You have seen the long straight avenues and the many concrete huts. We have advanced methods of agriculture, including machinery and pesticide."
"Your village is very nice. We don't disagree. However, our research demands that we move inland."
"I know what I am talking about. My sister married a Makakoro farmer. She's happy, but—"
"Then you have relatives there!" exclaims the woman Chendo assumes is Dr. Bouchet's wife. With her loose mane of red curls and speckled skin, she is the strangest creature he has ever seen. She has a nervous bird-like manner that worries him.
"Trust me," he says. "You would be happier here."
"That's so wonderful! You can be our liaison. Oh, Frédéric, it's going to work out after all!"
Dr. Manette clasps her hands and gives the male scientist such a look of joy that Chendo feels his whole argument carried away with the wind. He recognizes suddenly how determined they are to get to Makakoro. "Everyone will take us less seriously if we go there," he says half-heartedly.
He communicates his displeasure by pretending to fall asleep the next day, curled up in the back seat with the fingers of one hand wrapped around the handle of a large wooden trunk so that the road's frequent pits and boulders don't jostle him upright and reveal that he is really awake. When the doctors stop at a fork in the path—for they could no longer be said to be following a road—he waits until they poke him in the shoulder before he rubs his sleepy eyes and scowls at the dusty waste all around him. They ask which way, and he replies with a prepared French statement: "We are lost. I warned you that we should stay at home."
"You have no idea?" asks Dr. Bouchet.
Dr. Bouchet kneads the steering wheel with his hairy fists. He looks at the red-haired woman, who all this time has stared out the side window. "What do you say? Left or right?"
Dr. Manette only stares, lost in her own world.
"Merde," says Dr. Bouchet, pounding the steering wheel. "Merde." He shifts into drive. The old car creaks and hobbles over the stones like an old woman on bad knees.
"Did you take your pill this morning?" Dr. Bouchet says to his companion.
"Yes," she says to the window.
"Then what is it?"
The face Dr. Manette reveals is pink and swollen, like the flesh beneath a newly shed scab. A single tear has fallen. She lets him see how hurt she is—for it is clearly an emotional sickness that ails her—then looks away.
They pass an owl that lies dead in a dry patch of grass. It's here that Chendo first suspects that the expedition may not be favorably omened. "Pardon," he says. "We need to take the other path."
Dr. Bouchet squints into the rear-view mirror. "What's that, Chendo?"
"We need to take the other path. I just remembered."
Dr. Frédéric Bouchet sniffs the air and thinks he smells disease. The heat of afternoon has brought the men together on the shady pencha in the center of town, past which he and Marie must pass on the way back to the chief's compound. To Marie the dense group of bodies in the shade of the palm roof resembles a pack of lions, but Frédéric has host populations on his mind. Quantities of well-heated flesh. Rich blood for the Anopheles gambiae he carries in a holding tube in his shirt pocket, rich blood for the schizonts of P. falciparum. The corrupt salt-smell of farmhands reaches his nostrils, and he wonders if he can detect the presence of infection.
Marie has been crying. He did not see her, but the reappearance of swelling and discoloration around the eyes told him that the episode occurred when he left her alone in an irrigation ditch with dipper and pipette for collecting mosquito larvae. He hoped the work would occupy her mind, but now he suspects that she just stared at her muddy reflection and wept. Maybe her vials don't contain larvae at all, he thinks. Maybe upon analysis they will prove to be tears, saliva, blood, whatever fluids she thinks will show him what a sick heart she has. Anything is possible.
He says nothing. Marie holds her silence, too, making him worry all the more how she will finally draw him into the whirlwind of her self-loathing. She won't suffer alone. The paths of her storms are easy to predict.
The truth is that she has already spoiled everything. The thrill of taking initial samples. She knows what success would mean but prefers the sound of her own tropical downpour to . . . the plague. Hard to remember it's out there sometimes. "A war of the winds," they said on the news before he left, "a germ army from Africa . . ." They're waiting, every face in Europe uplifted, awaiting news of his cure, which he can smell as they near the glistening bodies, the West African immune response, a theory he has that goes way beyond Hemoglobin S or C . . .
With an elongated sigh, Marie breaks his reverie. "I must ask a question." Her attitude shows great composure, but he detects the patient weight of a reservoir pressing outward. "Are you sure you want me here?"
"Don't be silly."
"I feel it. You think I'm in the way. You want to be alone."
"You can't go hide in the laboratory anymore, Frédéric. The lab's in our bedroom."
"Who's hiding? What are you talking about?"
"When you put me in the proposal, I was so happy. I thought you wanted us to be together. It was a big step. I was surprised."
Frédéric's tongue is not so limber in these situations. The truth of his feelings has always been too blunt for a woman to bear, yet in no way can he face six months in the desert alone. He does not lie when he says he can't imagine doing the project without her.
"I kept thinking: a whole year. He wants me to be with him a whole year—it could go that long, you know. That's almost like being married. I thought it meant—" She wheels around to make him stop and listen.
They are near the pencha. A hundred eyes are examining the strange behavior of the newcomers, and Marie's eyes, the always probing, importunate eyes, begin to fill up like small glass condensation chambers.
"I know," he says with genuine guilt and compassion. "It is a commitment, this trip."
"I guess it made sense when we were in school. Well, there was Jean and Isabelle, Jules, Marcel and Veronika. . . Now Marcel and Veronika are getting married, and what are we doing?"
"Remember Dr. Baltard's warning."
"Why are we all alone out in the desert?"
"We're out in the desert, yes. It's a big stressor." From the corner of his eye, he notices the chief's son kneeling as he kneeled that afternoon, beseeching the scientists to come join the conversation. "But we have to cope. If you have a bad feeling, ignore it. You know it's just another passing episode, a shadow . . . Have you been taking your pills?"
"Stop asking me that. What about your damn pills?"
"We must be very careful until we adapt."
The chief's son produces a confusion of French syllables that sounds like "viens nous perder." Frédéric steps to the left to hide behind Marie's miserable face. "Let's be reasonable, Marie. I don't hate you, for crissake. I'm glad that you're here." Marie's mouth contorts in a struggle to hold back sorrow or maybe nausea. It's a profoundly lonely, still part of himself that clasps Marie's hands, her hot trembling hands. It knows what is right and how he should feel, though as always he is dead inside, and she is just an odd creature, a zoological specimen, something strange and puzzling. "I may not have fallen absolutely in love—which you know I would like to—but I want you here. I want you to help with the expedition. Can't we just ignore whatever doubts there are and be happy and keep each other company?"
Releasing the shy first tear of a good cry, she staggers away and breaks into a sprint. She waves her hands and shakes her head, running like a girl.
Without warning he stands fully exposed to the watchful, curious looks of the villagers, getting a bit upset himself, seeing what pain he can cause just by being Frédéric Bouchet. The chief's son has fallen back on his haunches in cautious uncertainty. The others have such white round eyes that they must be seeing evil spirits.
No communication is possible. He must get away. He makes the exaggerated shrug of a buffoon, points at the receding figure of his girlfriend, and says one of the seven Wolof words he thought prudent to memorize. "Sick," he says.
He runs away.
Chendo has already been making an impression on the chief's wives when Dr. Manette's leather boot punches a hole in the screen of millet stalks that shields the compound entrance from the looks of spirits and passers-by. The damage is done in a low corner, where her foot catches and pitches her into the dust. She has been running and won't be stopped. With the agility of the goats startled by her cry and impact, she gains her feet again, paddling the air, capsizing a precious bowl of red peppers and a blue plastic well bucket on the way to the nice hut in the corner, the corrugated aluminum door of which resounds like a drum.
This all puts Chendo in an awkward position. He's been telling the women of the compound (among whom are the chief's two wives, his daughters, nieces, and a fair-skinned Fulbe girl who must be from a neighboring compound) how this pair of French scientists is here to find the cure for malaria. The importance and difficulty of the expedition is not lost on his audience, particularly on the pretty Fulbe girl, who clearly treats him—with her quiet deferential questions—like a man of great learning and significance. He has explained that his reasons for guiding the white people to Makakoro Village are twofold. First, the nature of the research requires a remote location, where the disease can be studied in isolation. Second, he is well aware, from the testimony of his sister, that the people of Makakoro are generous and recognize the value of medical research. He is sure that if a cure is hidden in Wolof blood it will be found most easily among the Makakoro villagers.
Dr. Manette's fit is a blow to the appearance of professionalism he has created, however. The Fulbe girl, who goes by Loli, leaves the shade of the kitchen hut to kneel among the wreckage of peppers, required to work in the fetid afternoon heat because of the visitors he has brought to town. "I must beg your forgiveness . . ." he begins.
"What's the matter?" asks the chief's first wife, rising from her wood block as though ready to follow Dr. Manette and comfort her.
"It's nothing for us to worry about," Chendo says soothingly. "The scientists are newly married and have yet to adjust."
"Maybe she's pregnant," jokes one of the nieces.
Chendo begins another apology, but it is carried away on the crest of the women's laughter.
It's a bad sign, this mocking tone already, aimed at his entourage. But it gives him an idea. "Precisely the opposite, I'm afraid. You see, the good Dr. Bouchet and his wife have been unable to conceive at all. The grief this has caused them cannot be described. It's like a poison pill they each take every day."
At this very moment Marie can't find her anxiety pills. Her brand-new Senegalese indigenous clothing has been torn from the suitcase in bright swatches. She sits on a corner of the scratchy straw mattress and cries, cries in the suffocating heat and knows—without any thought for the tattered sanke mosquito net, the stagnant kettle of prayer water, or any other vector of infection—that she will soon die. Red-rimmed tunnel vision distorts the ache in her head. The Earth, slanted downward from where her feet touch the ground, pulls relentlessly with pinched fingers on her toes. She wants Frédéric to see her like this, what he has made her, the gullible little girl who gave up teaching, a small grant of her own—and the long happy hours at the Café des Moineaux with her friends, all those great people thrown away for a desert and a bunch of aborigines she can't even talk to. She hopes he walks in just in time to see her pitch forward in a venous heap on the floor due to a stroke in the brain, which could have been prevented if only . . . if only . . .
He's there, at the door, watching. The metal slams behind him. At first, she thinks he has gone into one of his rages, but his face is calm. "You torture yourself," he says.
"Where are my Lorazepams?"
"Can't we just talk for a second?"
"You hid them. You want me to die!"
"They're with the first-aid stuff. Only—could you postpone the coma just one minute?"
Marie pulls the hiking pack from a hook on one of the rafters and begins yanking open Velcro pockets.
"I want us to talk about this, not—God damn you!"
He hears the dull rattle of a forcibly accosted container of pills.
"All right," he says. "Have it your way."
He, too, goes digging through the pack, removing his own pill bottle: Domapam, "aggression pills." Both of the drugs are powerful sedatives.
They crouch on the hard-packed floor, palms resting on child-proof caps.
"Go on," he says.
"Leave me alone."
"I need you to stay, you know. We need ethnobotanical samples."
"I feel like I'm going to throw up."
"You know how important this study could be to both of us."
Marie's not kidding about being nauseated. She places a hand on Frédéric's shoulder for support. He's being terribly nice, she realizes. It's true that he doesn't hate her. She can see that much in his face. "I have to lie down. Could you help me into bed?"
Frédéric promptly helps her to her feet. He pushes aside the mosquito netting with one arm and helps her lay back. "Is it a sharp pain?"
"I just feel icky," she says, holding her belly. She squirms into a lengthwise position on the mattress, and he lies down beside her. With cautious movements of his fingers, he pulls loose the container of Lorazepams and drops it—with the container of Domapams—into a bowl carelessly balanced on the bed frame, which contains the uneaten holy kola nuts provided by the chief for the health of their souls. "It'll be okay. You just need to rest. Can I get you anything?"
"No." she hugs him closer. It's okay. The mood is passing. How she would survive these episodes without Frédéric she doesn't know. Maybe he's right. Maybe she should get Chendo to show her to a traditional healer tomorrow. Once she gets to work on her own experiments there will be less time to obsess about everything else.
Frédéric explores the soft red mass of her hair with his fingers. He does really like her. He's drawn to incendiary women by some subconscious mechanism. He's often thought that if he performed electrophoresis on fragments of skin cell membranes from Marie and all of his ex-girlfriends he'd find intriguing similarities, a phenetic hyperspace of every last pair of lips he has kissed, maybe a common protein, a pheromone, a poison. Something, maybe. A reason.
During his mid-morning prayer, Chendo thanks Allah for delivering him into such good fortune. At sunrise he shared a huge bowl of sweet lah with the chief's nephews, and then, telling the French scientists that the local rustic cuisine is inedible, he also had a fine plate of fresh eggs and dried fruit. Allah forgives the small deception because his role as translator makes him extremely valuable to both households.
Today he pleases everyone by bringing the scientists to the home of a little girl who is dying of malaria. The girl's mother grabs Dr. Bouchet's hand before he can perform the clearly painful operation of removing blood from one of the girl's fingertips, but Chendo assures the mother that if anyone can save her daughter it is these European-educated scientists. When Dr. Bouchet later tells Chendo that the little TV screen he is attaching to an IV in the girl's arm is only a data-gathering device, Chendo lets the translation slide a little, saying that it is the newest diagnostic instrument available to Western science and will determine exactly what ails little Absa. Dr. Bouchet reiterates that he will not interfere with the villagers' usual treatment of the girl, that he is not a medical doctor but that his work could help cure children like Absa everywhere, and only then does Chendo begin to understand what they are doing.
He does not translate immediately, having been certain that the Europeans would treat the sick people he brought to them. His immediate reaction is that it is terribly selfish of the doctors, whose first-aid kids surely contain some of the more expensive medicines, not to help the little girl in some way, but saying this in front of the girl's family, even in French, seems like a dangerous gamble. Instead, he tells the family that the infection is fairly advanced and that the doctors make no guarantee about the treatment.
When Dr. Bouchet asks why the mother has broken into a fit of sobbing and thrown her arms over her daughter's limp body, Chendo says, "She was hoping you could cure her."
"Tell her that the doctors of my country are as helpless as anyone against this parasite. Our only hope is to study the infection in people such as the Wolof, where resistance is strong."
"He says that your daughter is resisting the sickness. She should get better, and what he learns will help save others." In this way, Chendo feels he has allowed the scientists and the poor Makakoro mother to understand each other.
However, his translating ability encounters a bigger challenge as soon as the "traditional healer" he has sent for arrives. Dr. Manette wants him to tell the healer so many things—how much esteem she has for his profession, how much she has read, how little experienced firsthand except for the daughter of a healer from India who had emigrated to France and visited the Institute one day—that all Chendo can do is offer the healer a few words of greeting.
In response, the healer bows and says, "The honor is mine. Please let me provide both of you with a treatment for your infertility. Such a journey as yours must certainly reach its much-anticipated conclusion."
Here the healer produces two kamas, herbal charms wrapped in paper bearing Arabic writing and fashioned into necklaces. These charms require some fast talking of Chendo. "Baba Mbai wishes to celebrate your arrival with these very special presents." He reaches up to fit one over Dr. Manette's red globe of hair. "You must wear them at all times or he—and everyone in town—will be deeply offended."
"This is a kama," Dr. Manette says, holding hers in her palm as if it were a specimen of insect. "What is it for? Does it have magical powers?"
Dr. Bouchet takes his from Chendo and puts it on. "Tell the doctor that we are greatly honored."
"They are grateful and eager to follow your instructions," he tells the healer.
"Have them make a tea from this powder twice a day for a month, and we will see what happens." The healer hands Chendo a leather pouch tied with a string.
"In addition," Chendo tells the doctors, "Baba Mbai offers this tea, which you should drink twice a day. It will enhance your intellectual powers and speed your research."
"How wonderful!" exclaims Dr. Manette, taking the pouch. She dangles it from her fingers and holds it up to the light.
From here, the conversation returns to the sick girl. Dr. Manette wants to observe the traditional treatment and study samples of the medicines employed. Since another treatment is not due until that evening, Baba Mbai invites them all to return. He will show them the necessary countermeasures against the evil spirits that bring disease.
That leaves Chendo the afternoon free. After a nice lunch with his sister, he sleeps most of it away at the pencha until he is awakened by talking, after which he entertains the men of the village with a somewhat elaborated account of how Dr. Manette cried on the way to town. "Hopefully Baba Mbai's medicine will bring them a child and make their marriage well again," he concludes cautiously. Later, he dines with the chief's family, does another bit of translation work, leaving Dr. Manette with a basketful of samples and a rosy glow on her cheeks, and, finally, takes the evening off to be with the young people at the pencha.
Making the claim that he is one of the best drummers of his own village, he is promptly handed a plastic bucket and invited to join the musicians. The night is bright and fragrant, full of moonlight and soft dry breezes, a hint of ripening baobab fruit at intervals, when the wind carries away the deep buttery musk of the women's hair. A rapid night rhythm comes to the dancing circle. The legs of the dancing woman flash with the flames of the fire, the clapping hands crack like green wood, and his fingertips burn. A shifting firelight rhythm leaps from his plastic drum with its own combustive force. Loli, the pretty Fulbe girl, takes a turn in the circle, and the night is one ecstatic music. Birds stealing millet seeds from the fields cry out in joy. The river listens in contented stillness. A single heartbeat propels the blood of all creatures in unison.
The women shower Loli with hair-ties, the men bump shoulders for the pleasure of filling her hands with kola nuts, while the young man playing the sabor seems to have strayed into a gliding sorrowful tune, played with wet eyes and obvious longing, and Chendo's fingers have cooled down into their own smoldering rhythm.
He's not bothered that Loli's family may have humble origins. He might propose to her anyway, lift her out of Makakoro and give her a stature equal to her beauty. Already the joy of his marriage day fills his heart. Loli's lovely grateful eyes, her pleasure to be joining a solid family in a Mouride village and a husband who is practically an educated gentleman.
During his nighttime prayer, he again praises Allah's good sense in arranging this bacteriological expedition. Then he slips out of the compound with a bowl of canned peaches he has saved from dinner with the scientists. He goes to the wooden tower where he knows Loli is guarding the millet from birds. He fills the holy silence of night with her name and sees her lean into the moonlight. "Loli, I've brought you a special treat. Can I come up?"
An older woman appears next to Loli with a look of grave skepticism, but he is allowed to climb the ladder and deliver the peaches. Loli eats with her fingers, smiling and humming in pleasure with every bite. "You're too sweet," she tells him.
"It's nothing," he says.
When the older woman turns her back to shake a rope of tin cans and shout at the birds, Loli places a slice of peach in Chendo's mouth. For an instant, he tastes her fingers with his lips. He smiles in gratitude, feeling that they have a secret understanding.
While Chendo has the happiest dreams of this long summer, the little girl with malaria dies in the night without so much as a flicker from the TV screen attached to her arm. Though the research has proceeded smoothly, even Drs. Bouchet and Manette sense the open dread with which the crowd of Wolof observe the removal of the IV. A large proportion of the villagers have come to offer sympathy since the women of Absa's compound raised the death cry earlier that morning, and all have been afraid to disturb the mysterious progress bars on the TV screen.
"They do understand that this is just a measuring device," Dr. Bouchet asks Chendo, folding down the little screen and clicking the plastic hasps into place.
"I think so." In Wolof, Chendo addresses the mother and the father, who share a space beside the body. "The scientist wants to remind you that his machine is harmless. The disease is what killed your daughter."
The father's response is immediate and accompanied by vigorous movements of the arm that does not encircle his wife's shoulders. "Why did they leave her to die? They could have done something."
"Like I said before, the scientists are here only to observe. They would not be here if they knew how to treat the disease."
"You told us they would help."
Chendo swallows painfully. "I was wrong. I misunderstood."
"We don't want them or their devil machine in our home. Get them out!"
Chendo moves quickly to explain the shouting. "We should go," he tells the scientists. "The family is greatly upset about their daughter. They don't want to hear about science."
The scene follows Chendo: the silent onlookers, the doll-like corpse, the frightening little machine that presided over the girl's death. Who cannot believe that Absa's soul is locked up inside Dr. Bouchet's box? That's how it must strike the villagers, and Chendo is inclined to share their fancies.
When Loli tells him that her uncle Bakari has come down with a headache and chills, he does not inform the scientists right away. Instead, he sits just outside the compound putting together the exact words that will elicit something more than their curiosity.
Meanwhile, Chendo is not the only person in the village who knows a little French. One of the chief's nephews has finally won a long-sought lesson from Dr. Bouchet. The two men carry on a halting but surprisingly natural conversation, which gives the scientist fresh insight into his and Marie's true standing among the villagers. He receives the news of his infertility at first with the presumption that his pupil has made a semantic error, next with bewilderment, and finally with a hardening comprehension of Chendo's mischief.
Samba, the chief's nephew, laughs with abandon. "That's all the men at the pencha are talking about all of the time. Your can't have babies!"
"I'm sure it's quite a joke."
"They will laugh when they see it is a no-truth."
Chendo's mischief gradually takes on the look of treachery as Dr. Bouchet returns to his hut and considers how much has been thrown into jeopardy: the months of preparation, the million-franc MEMS biopsy system whose nanoscale caplets have already diagnosed P. falciparum B, in Absa, and begun to construct a record of the Wolof immune response, the requirement that the device be accepted by the community, the hundreds of millions of absolutely defenseless inhabitants of temperate climates awaiting a cure, his cure . . .
"Chendo!" he hollers suddenly, throwing open the aluminum door. "Where is the boy?" he demands of one of the women feeding millet into the small hand-powered mill.
She doesn't know, but presently Chendo appears in the courtyard. "Yes, sir?" he says with alert apprehension.
"Come inside." Dr. Bouchet waits at the small table where he has set up his microscope until Chendo appears at the door. "Shut the door," he says.
The boy stands with an agitated shifty movement of the eyes, which gives Dr. Bouchet great satisfaction.
"You have completely failed as a translator," he says. "Your job, as we defined it, was to convey the harmless and vital nature of my research to your countrymen. You were to make accurate representations of my and Dr. Manette's words, actions, and intentions. On all of these counts you have failed. You have blatantly lied about me and my colleague, you have distorted my every thought, and you have possibly assisted the deaths of millions of people all over the world. You will return to your village on the next vehicle that leaves this town, and for the rest of your life I want you to reflect upon how foolish and selfish and incompetent you were!"
Chendo sees genuine fiendish rage in Dr. Bouchet's eyes, but he has enough courage to say the words he has been preparing outside. "It's not too late," he says.
"You will be paid for the time you were here. Now get out!"
"If you show compassion next time . . . There's a man who has become sick. If you give him some medicine . . ."
"No, dammit! That was the whole point I wanted you to convey. No medicine! Most Wolof can beat P. falciparum B without it!"
"But if you try . . ."
"Just get out! I've got another translator. The chief's nephew Samba can make himself understood. I don't need you anymore. Go!"
"Dr. Bouchet." Chendo takes a step forward to signal his courage. "You will be finished in Makakoro if you do not show your goodwill. Already the chief's sons are talking about throwing you out."
"I will handle the chief's sons."
"Everyone is saying you are a devil. These are the exact opinions I have been trying to protect you against."
Dr. Bouchet turns to face the table. He ignites the propane burner.
"There is a sick man. He is the uncle of a girl, a servant in the chief's compound."
"Splendid." Dr. Bouchet faces Chendo. He has removed the kama from around his neck and set it on fire. He puts it into a crucible he holds with a pair of tongs. "I will see to him as per my research. And you'll have nothing to do with it!" He drops the crucible onto the mud floor, stomps it to pieces, and then begins stomping the pieces into dust. "I am not a fool! I will not be made into a fool!"
Chendo backs away slowly. "It's your only chance, Doctor."
"Go, I said. Go!"
Dr. Bouchet screams these last words with both fists clenched and red blood in his face. Chendo hurries out, fearing that he is about to get hit.
Dr. Bouchet kicks the last crumbs of ceramic under the bed.
Marie picks a bad time to come bawling into the room with the empty basket she has meant to fill with wild herbs.
"And what's the matter with you?" he demands.
"I don't know." She stands red-faced and mournful, waiting for another question.
"Did you find the plants?"
She drops the basket and leans back against the wall. "I went all over. I have the pictures, but . . ."
"Why are you crying?"
"I don't know." She wipes tears and lachrymose mascara from her eyes. "Everyone watches me funny, and I can't talk. I feel like a freak."
"Take Chendo if you want to talk to people."
"That's not what I mean!" she cries vehemently.
Frédéric's not giving in this time. He lets this new wave of sorrow come over her like a seizure, lets her dark eyes yearn for him, lets her need increase as he unfolds a handkerchief and begins to dust the microscope. "I can't do anything about that," he says.
"I can't even find the herbs that everyone has studied a million times. How am I going to discover anything new?"
"Why don't you take Samba, the chief's nephew—he's going to be our new translator now that I've fired Chendo—and go out into the bush with Baba Mbai and find your fucking plants. I can't babysit you twenty-four hours a day."
"But . . . but . . ." She's reaching for him like a vampire with a wooden stake in her heart.
"But Frédéric . . ."
"Go! You're making the sick!"
As she's gathering up her basket and notebook, she asks about Chendo and gets pushed out the door with the sole of his boot. He exits with her to hire Samba and find a ride for Chendo.
Chendo is hustled into a car that very afternoon without a chance to say goodbye to Loli, who has been out gathering firewood. Her only news of his departure will be a simple notification of his disgrace. Her father, too, will wonder why he has not shown up to help thatch the hut of one of her cousins, only to discover how unfit Chendo truly is to court his daughter. Such will be the unfolding of Dr. Bouchet's plan.
Chendo is not blind to the relish with which the scientist—with firm pressure from his boot sole—packed him into the swampy hot cage of the car, a little Datsun crammed with eight people, going to the big town for kerosene and cigars, Chendo just another yokel once again. The expulsion is more about humiliating him than anything. The scientist is taking revenge, having guessed Chendo's involvement with Loli and determined the surest way to end it. Right now he is probably expounding to Loli's family on the ignorance and malice behind the guarded half-truths Chendo told (which in fact were needed to protect the scientists from bad opinions). He will have that nasty look on his face, the red cheeks and bloodless lips, the pouting look of a child. Dr. Bouchet is a devil, he decides. He walks with Satan and will turn Loli's heart. Loli, a girl he might have married.
No. Chendo does not obey the will of Satan. "Stop the car!" he cries, fully two miles south of town.
The man on whose lap he is sitting growls and shifts his weight, apparently asleep.
"What's the matter?" asks someone in front.
"We're taking you to Bakrab," says the driver.
"I have to go back."
"The doctor says you're leaving," says the driver. "Maybe it's a good idea."
The car shudders against the road, gaining speed.
"I'm going to be sick," says Chendo, amazed that Dr. Bouchet's curse has cast its evil shadow so far—onto him, a good Mouride farmer. "Really, my stomach."
"Good one," laughs someone in the back seat.
"Lean out the window," says the driver.
"I'm going to vomit." Chendo holds his stomach in vain until they near a dry creekbed that cuts through the road. The car slows down. With a sudden display of good health, he throws open the door and topples out. He hits the ground running.
He runs all the way to Makakoro, cutting across fields because he's frustrated with the crooked road. Near town, he comes across Dr. Manette, Sambo, and Baba Mbai on a fallow section of land. They see him before he can change course, so he approaches.
The healer greets him with a gray, old face, not saying a word.
"Your roads all run in zigzags," Chendo says to explain his presence in the field.
"They protect the village from evil spirits, which travel in straight lines." The healer seems to speak to an invisible listener. He returns to digging up a small weed with an iron knife.
"What do you mean?"
Baba Mbai goes on digging.
Dr. Manette approaches, swinging a basket and smiling.
"I'm back," says Chendo cautiously.
"Hourra!" she cheers. "Vive Chendo!"
As Chendo slips back into town, Dr. Bouchet is stomping his grimy clothes and canned foods back into his grandfather's sea chest. The locals have turned against him and Marie. The two of them must go tonight. By now, he should be able to walk right into the room of any sick person and attach his machine, but thanks to Chendo he's not even welcome past the entrance of the neighboring compound. Well, if the women over there don't even have the patience to read his sign language, if they're going to raise a cry and have the blacksmith's son threaten him with a barbed spear, then he will take his research elsewhere. Makakoro doesn't have to be the site of the discovery. He can take his work to any of a thousand villages.
Fed up with a can of pears that won't fit in the old chest, he spikes it into the floor, leaving a pit in the dirt and a spray of juice. He's packed. Now if that crazy woman would just get back to help carry everything . . .
Loli's uncle has fallen into a state of near coma. His eyes run with tears. Chendo's cot, granted only reluctantly by a family who now suspect the French scientists of devil's magic, shares a platform with large palm baskets of millet in a hut with no roof. He hears of the uncle's condition only from the crying of Loli's mother, carried like a fine smoke across his square of sky.
He really should be staying with his sister, but the notion won't leave his head that Loli's uncle is sick only because some translation came out of his mouth in the wrong way. The world that so recently seemed as wide-open as his imagination has been warped by a shortcoming of words, somewhere, and so it seems to be a matter once again of picking the right words to set it right. They will have to be spoken to the French scientists, he knows, but what they will be . . .
He will have to see when he gets there, because one more useless moment in this storage hut and he will surely blame himself for the death of Loli's uncle—
The chief's sons have already gathered outside the scientists' hut when Chendo slips into the compound. The shouting can be heard a hundred paces away. Only closer does it resolve into crying and collisions.
"What's happening?" he whispers.
"The white people are fighting again," one of the men says simply.
Chendo goes to the door, daring only to spy through a crack.
"Baba Mbai was being nice. He asked me . . ." Dr. Manette is hugging her knees and crying in the far corner.
"These rotten roads will be deathtraps at night."
"I said I was sorry!"
Dr. Bouchet hurls a small canvas bag into a pile of luggage by the door, forcing Chendo to withdraw for a moment.
"Come on. Get up." The scientist snaps his fingers. "We've got to go."
"I was finally doing research! He was showing me . . . he was showing . . ."
Dr. Bouchet goes to stand over her. She covers her face with her hands and cries louder.
"Want to see what I think of your research?" He picks up the basket that sits next to Dr. Manette, aims his black eyes, and pitches it against the ceiling, bringing down a shower of twigs, utensils, splinters, and botanical specimens.
Dr. Manette's scream rises to such a murderous caterwaul that the chief's sons come running, but Chendo stops them with his hand.
Why does he hold back? He could push open the door right now, but the sight of Dr. Manette on all fours wailing over the scattered plants and Dr. Bouchet sneaking over to the table to light a gas burner has him transfixed. They are like two spiders mating, or two children praying, or a fly-specked carcass, or some other process that must not be disturbed. When Dr. Bouchet applies a blue flame to a second basket, Chendo watches as though observing something holy.
By the time Dr. Bouchet shoves the burning basket onto the floor, the flames are too big for Dr. Manette's feet. She takes a few kicks at it while Dr. Bouchet laughs with crossed arms, then she simply punts the whole thing into the wall. Before the explosion of sparks loses its brightness, she smashes the other basket—into which she has been crying and storing bits of rubbish—on the same exact spot. She howls. Her embrace of the giant microscope in its zippered canvas bag, the wrenching of her torso, the triumphant lacerated scream as she lets go is just a spark of delirium. The bags come open, and so does the chest. Tiny disintegrations of glass become general as she and Dr. Bouchet destroy their property in microscopic detail. They pace slow as trolls in the smoke, taking turns. Sunbursts of pills fill the air, pages of books, sleek black casings of electronic devices. The roof begins to rain fragments of flaming palm leaves, and only then do the scientists kick open the door and try to escape.
Men are already arriving with buckets of water from the well. The alarm has been sounded with shouts and bells. Dr. Bouchet sees the crowd and runs back into the hut. "Help me!" he shouts. Dr. Manette stoops into the doorway, and the two scientists haul the empty chest out to their car, staring about with wild soot-smeared faces, Dr. Bouchet crying "Run! Run!" as though their lives are being threatened.
And so the scientists speed away, honking their horn, without Chendo saying a single word to them.
The whole village shows up to fight the spreading fire, including Loli, who soaks sheets in a tin basin. In the same dull glow that made the scientists look like devils, she is a solemn worshipper, doing her work with absolute devotion. He does not dare to speak to her tonight for fear of disturbing the sanctity of this picture she forms in his mind.
When the flames recede, he returns to his cot in the storage hut. He speaks only to ask about Loli's uncle. Bakari, Loli's grandmother tells him, has awoken during the tumult and asked for a glass of water. He has stopped crying.